How Katori Hall Crafted That Shocking 'P-Valley' Finale

And what's next for Season 2 of the incredible Starz series.

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The Paradise Room at The Pynk -- the strip club in the fictional town of Chucalissa, Mississippi, where Katori Hall's P-Valley takes place -- is bathed in a blue, otherworldly light. When the show's protagonist and femme fatale Autumn Night (Elarica Johnson) enters that room at the beginning of the Season 1 finale, she descends into her version of Hades, and just how she gets out is the mystery that will carry the series into Season 2. 

As the episode begins, Autumn, aka Hailey Colton, is finally met by her past, her ex Montavius (Cranston Johnson), who comes in search of the money she stole. It all boils down to an off-screen conflict where Uncle Clifford (Nicco Annan) and Mercedes (Brandee Evans) come to Hailey's aid. It's unclear what exactly goes down, but blood spills out the door at the end of the episode, "Murda Night." Still, Hall and her team of writers offer even more twists in the final moments: Hailey buys The Pynk out from under the developers who want to turn it into a casino, making her partners with Uncle Clifford, who is reeling from the heartbreak of being momentarily shunned by his lover, aspiring rapper Lil Murda (J. Alphonse Nicholson). 

This is all to say that Hall, who based the Starz series on her play Pussy Valley, has a lot to untangle going forward. Best-known as a playwright, who was also behind this year's Tina Turner musical on Broadway, the creator and showrunner got on the phone with Thrillist to talk about her plans, this fascinating world she's created, and Lil Murda's trap bangers. 

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Thrillist: What did you want to reveal about Autumn Night in the finale and how did you see that confrontation with Montavius going down? 
Katori Hall:
 I always had, like, five years of the show in my head. I went through this development process where I was thinking like, "Oh this first season is going to be 13 episodes." And they're like, "No, we're going to give you eight." I knew that the climactic moment had to hang on the fact that Hailey was finally going to be found and confronted by her ex. Because I knew what the end was, I reversed engineered it. So she arrived to the shore of The Pynk as this mystery woman, which is a very kind of noir aesthetic. She feels dangerous; you just don't know what she's up to. There's a sneakiness about her. It was really wonderful to tease out this mystery of what she was doing at The Pynk, who is she really, why does she know about scamming, and all of these things one would assume a woman who looked like her wouldn't know. So that final confrontation is definitely a moment of reckoning where she comes face-to-face with her death angel.

It's kind of like a Garden of Gethsemane moment where she has to figure out, using her wiles, and the things that she knows about this man to be able to control him enough so that she can survive this interaction. I wouldn't say that he was abusive in the same way that Keyshawn's partner had been abusive towards her, but this thing that she saw very quickly that this man was very dangerous and if she would want to survive with her child, she was going to have to separate herself from him. And so, by stealing his money, she thought she was going to get a sense of freedom.

What I just love about this interaction between them is that you actually see that, even though he is dangerous and has abusive tendencies, there's still this odd fascination with her and this need to control her. He could easily snap her neck if he was so angry. But he actually is very hurt by her running away from him and stealing that money. And to me, that just goes to show you that she is a complicated woman. That she knows how to get inside of men and control them in ways that they never would expect. And you see that with Andre as well. That altercation is a moment where, yes, she does follow orders just because she is scared of poking the beast, but you see that there's a kind of craftiness about her inside of that space. And it's this beautiful moment where all the things that we set up for the entire season payoff.  I love the fact that Mercedes is the hero of the day. Or the "shero" of the day. I remember that when I first turned in that draft they were like, "Oh, well, why can't Diamond come in, or why can't Big L see that something's gone awry?"

I was like, "No, these are women who figure out how to save themselves and save each other." And so to me, it was really important that Mercedes take it upon herself to step up and figure out what's going on, because that's her sister. That's emblematic of what I saw during my research, those six years where I was interviewing dancers and being in a club, there's truly these bonds that can last a lifetime. I think Mercedes stepping up into her "shero" heels is a great reflection of that.

Why did you want to leave the exact moment of death off-screen? 
It was definitely the decision to articulate to the audience that these three people are actually the true trinity. And that there is a pact that was made in that room. Something happened in that room, a gun went off. We know who probably died, but we do not know who picked up that gun and shot the fatal shot. I just think it's important that we pull these characters into the second season like their lives are changed forever. And if they didn't have a strong bond before, they have an even stronger bond now because there's this secret that exists between all three of them. As we develop these characters even more, I think time will reveal what truly happened in the Paradise Room, but there's so many levels to what happened and what the cover up is, and who has been a part of the cover up. I'm just really excited to see how people react. Because that's going to be the big question: Who shot Montavius? Is Montavius dead? 

I just assumed he was dead, but it's probably not safe to assume anything going forward. Did you always have the first season ending Hailey buying The Pynk? 
I would say that definitely was always a part of the story because as this amazing character, as this mystery, I think eventually I want people to know the woman. Her backstory is very interesting. These people have become her family. And that says something about her character, the fact that she has the choice to reboot her life and that she was open to dreaming new dreams. The fact that she had decided to put down roots in Chucalissa by basically finishing washing the rest of her money, by buying this club. But she's just so smart, I think it's her protecting herself but I also think that it's her protecting this new family that's in her life. I am looking forward to going into her character a whole lot more, and for people to really understand why a person would do that. Why would she set down in a place that she was about to move away from? I think it has a lot to do with the fact that she was shown love from Clifford and also from Mercedes. These people stepped up to protect her and so she's like, "I owe them and this is my new life now." It's funny because people started out like, "I don't like her." And I think by the ending, they're like, "I kind of like her, however I still don't completely trust her." Because that last look that she gives to Uncle Clifford. It's like, "Wait a minute, is this going to be a power struggle?" And quite frankly, it probably will be.

You posted on Twitter a story from Thrillist about Atlanta strip clubs and how they're dealing with the pandemic. Are you planning to address 2020 in Season 2? 
I think because I haven't been in the writers room, I can't say for sure for sure. But I do think there will be an element. If it's not directly COVID, then there will be certain things that symbolize and are emblematic of what we are going through. Because at the end of the day, Chucalissa is a fictional town. You can make up anything. However, to be in conversation with what is happening in the world, I think is very important. Because that's just how the show operates, the fact that the show is talking about marginalized communities in this way, about corporate powers taking over whole neighborhoods and whole towns. That is stuff that is happening today. And so I think it's very important for us to make sure that we are a part of the conversation that's happening in our world right now. But obviously, it's the thing of figuring out how that will layer into the bigger story that I have in mind for multiple seasons.


Can you talk a little bit about the origins of Uncle Clifford? I know actor Nicco Annan has been working with this character since the first reading of the play. 
Yes, well, a lot of people are just taken by Uncle Clifford. She feels like a revolutionary. But she comes a bit from my own reality. She is based off of three living ancestors of mine, which is my mama, who don't take no shit, my daddy, who don't take no shit, and then my Uncle Clifford, who really don't take no shit. They're not queer at all, however their personalities and how resilient they are as human beings and just how fucking funny they are, I've made it into the soul of this fictional Uncle Clifford. Something that's a trademark of my work is that I often name a character after someone who is a relative or a friend in my life. And so that's why Uncle Clifford does have my own relative's name. She definitely is a unique being in that Uncle Clifford is considered non-binary; she prefers the pronouns she and her. What I love about this name Uncle Clifford is the fact that she's like, "Call me she and her, but I'm still keeping 'uncle' in front of my name." She is so emblematic of the fluidity of her identity.

She has just been a dream to figure out with not only the writing team, but also the costume designer and our makeup team, and our hair team, ways in which we could make sure that Uncle Clifford is visually articulated in a way that is feminine and masculine in equal measure. And the fact that Nicco, having been with the character for a decade now, came with ideas and a perspective that just really meshed with this process. It was a lot of trial and error, it was a lot of just getting the character in front of the camera and making sure that things didn't feel too pushed. Because Uncle Clifford is a very big and almost theatrical character, but that's because my Uncle Clifford is a theatrical person in real life. What's been very beautiful about the response to Uncle Clifford is that people are understanding that the fact the bigness and the boldness is real and it's not fake or exaggerated. There are people who walk in the world who are, just themselves, they feel like characters. So I was really proud that we just hit the bullseye when it came to how Uncle Clifford looks like, feels like, sounds like.

How did you see the relationship between Lil Murda and Uncle Clifford developing over the season as your central love story? 
There was a joke on Twitter. Somebody was like, "Uncle Clifford getting more ass than the girls." It's this interesting new thing where it was so unexpected that those two were going to be our central love story. That all types of people, women, men who are cisgender, heteronormative, everyone is rooting for these two souls to make it. I just really wanted to show the possibility of true love between these two people. Lil Murda has really awakened a lot of conversations within the Black community, specifically about men who have been forced to keep their sexual identity a secret because of the assumption of Black masculinity. He walks in the world as a very hyper-masculine young man, and so there is this assumption that he would never like another man or somebody who was non-binary. And yet we see him falling in love. Truly falling in love. There's all these moments of tenderness. And even from the first moment they meet, there's this soul connection, which I think is just super surprising. Maybe it's lustful, but I think Lil Murda is an artist and is truly sensitive in the fact that he pours his love into his songs, and is inspired by his feelings for Uncle Clifford. It's just this kind of beautiful romantic gesture. He is truly the most romantic person on the show. 

The car scene is so romantic. You've even got the Titanic "hand on the glass" moment. 
Yeah, so romantic. This is what this show loves to do. We love to take things that people think they know, whether the steamy Titanic window shot or the down low Black men, and we just turn everything on its head whether it's an image or a character. And so in terms of where we leave them, we leave them in a very precarious place. The fact that Lil Murda ignores Uncle Clifford when this opportunity arises in the body of this homophobic manager. The fact that he pushes Uncle Clifford away, very subtly but very firmly, is reflection of the world in which he knows he's operating within. I tweeted out, "How many gay southern rappers do you know?" And people were like, "I know this person and this person and that person." I'm like, "Yes, I hear you. However, how many have presented in this type of masculine way that Lil Murda does?" And it was crickets. There's no comp to Lil Murda. So I think this show is really going to take to task with the hip-hop music industry when it comes to that. Because I personally know of some men who have relationships with other men, but they cannot be honest about it because the hip-hop world is very punishing. It prides itself on the hyper masculinity and the braggadocio. And so with Lil Murda, I'm just very excited to upend all of that, but I do think we land in a place of extreme truth where there's this young man who's extremely ambitious. It's just this knee-jerk reaction that happens in the moment when he is instantly sorry about it. It's because I think he loves Uncle Clifford.

"Fallin'" is such a great song. How did you find Lil Murda's musical voice? 
We had a very challenging process because I'm not a rapper. Now I am, but I wasn't then. We had a music supervisor at the time. I had created a dream arc for this rapper: I wanted him to start off in a place where he was trying to figure out what his sound was. So this whole thing, this trap-reggae-soul, and the fact that his lyrics were uber-misogynistic, was very much in line with where a lot of artists start off. They're trying to find out what their voice is and they're being derivative when it comes to what is selling. They're like, "Oh, if they're saying 'get on my ass, get on my lap,' then I will say that too." And then when he starts having the interactions with Uncle Clifford, as an artist it's that place of, "Oh, I need to write some of my truth. What do I have to say about the world?"

And so we had this beautiful thing that happened where I was looking for artists who could write in Lil Murda's voice, but also show the gradations of his improvement. There was this guy [who worked in craft services] who used to fix my omelette every day. His name was Antwon, and he was like, "You know I'm a rapper, right?" And so Antwon ended up convincing J. Alphonse, who plays Lil Murda ,and also my Co-EP Patrik[-Ian Polk] to listen to this song. So they listened and they were like "Katori, you need to listen to his music." And so I ended up listening to his music and then a light bulb went off. He had the chops. He was ready. He has something to say, and he could possibly write for Lil Murda." And so he ended up penning the episode 2 song "Mine," and then Lil Murda's song "Screamin' Murda," which is at the end of episode eight. 

But we also went out to other songwriters, the hits, the moments where everything comes together and we explained to them that Lil Murda is struggling with his feelings for this other person, and we wanted to create a trap love song. We wanted for it to be unique. Lil Murda is very influenced by the southern sound, the Memphis horrorcore, crunk sound. But we wanted to make sure we sonically saw his growth as an artist in each song that was presented on the show. So in episode 4, with the help of DJ Neva Scared, he's able to produce a track that feels real. It feels like it's saying something, but also you can twerk to it. It's so different from other trap songs because it's not just about twerking to it, it's an emotional song, it's almost like a modern century blues song. He's talking about love and he's talking about giving it all up for love, which is very much in Lil Murda's character and also his voice. So we were very glad that there would be two songwriters who were able to pin that for us. And J. Alphonse -- who himself is a musician, he's a drummer -- he was able to go in the booth because he has a sense of musicality himself. And we saw him transform into this rapper. Quite frankly, real talk, I think J. Alphonse raps better than some of the guys out there rapping now. 

You've described the show as "Delta noir." I was wondering how you conceived the look of the show with all the pinks and purples. 
Absolutely. Delta noir is noir with a twerk to it. So it's taking sharp contrast and using it with these intense colors, but bathing those colors on Black skin, which oftentimes is not lit very well in our cinematic history. And so we've taken so many principles from the noir genre, like the more expressionistic and silhouetted lighting, and placed it in a world that no noir has gone before. The fact that we are focusing on characters that traditionally have never been seen in that particular genre, like Uncle Clifford and Mercedes. They're not peripheral; they are the center of the narrative.

I had a lot of conversation with our DPs about how we were going to make sure that Black skin was lit in a way that shows the different tones and luminosity. So I love it when we have those opportunities to see Black skin under blue light or pink light, because Black skin is very reflective. I love the two tones that often pop up in our frames. Like, for example, at the end of episode 7 where you're seeing Lil Murda ascend the stage and you're seeing Autumn Night descend into the Paradise Room. You see those two colors on both of their faces. With Lil Murda, you see gold and then you see blue, which is symbolic of this conflict. Like, "I am two different people." With Autumn Night, you see her coming through these shafts of light. She's not always two different people; she's four different people. It's like, "Are you Lakeisha Savage, are you Hailey, or are you Autumn Night right now? Who are you, girl?" Just to kind of show the duplicity of all of these characters through the shaping of light. I've been so proud of the cinematography and the framing and the fact that we have borrowed very heavily from, I would say, music video editing where we're constantly kind of picking songs that lyrically and sonically are telling the story, but everything has a pulse to it. 

How did you find the sounds and vocabulary of different regions of the South within this world? 
We called the language in the show "slanguage." It's this beautiful fusion of accent and dialect, which is syntax and vocabulary, along with actual slang. And the linguistic landscape that Chucalissa is, is definitely the fusion of what I call a Memphis sound and a Northern Mississippi sound. The African-American vernacular is such a beautiful form of communication to me, it's music to my ears. It's so funny. I love to just call my parents in Mississippi and just listen to them talk a little bit because I write how I hear. And I want it to elevate a tongue that has been very much denigrated.

A lot of people have been like, "Oh my god, with this sound? It makes people seem uneducated and we are better than this. I wish people spoke better." It's like when Zora Neale Hurston embraced the tongue of people who just were who they were and it was a beautiful sound. So the fact that we are honoring and uplifting and elevating this way of speaking to actual poetry, it has been such a great joy and I love the fact that everyone speaks differently. Autumn Night hails from Houston, Texas. So she comes in and she has a different sound. Even the people who are living in the same town sound different from each other. Like, Mercedes sounds completely different from Shelle, who is her dead baby daddy's widow. So to me, it just shows the plethora of ways in which Black people can communicate with each other, particularly down South. It's just such a beautiful music, and it's music to my ears.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.